Kasey Kahne had a disappointing end to his NASCAR career, but friends and former teammates fondly recall his 15-year tenure.
“Kasey is a really tough competitor, and drove the car hard, and gave it 100 percent all the time,” former crew chief Kenny Francis said. “He was one of the good guys in the sport; one of the nicest guys around. I hope everybody knows and understands he’s such a good guy, down to earth, as good a person you’d ever want to meet. For all the wins and success, and all the tough times we’ve been through, he’s just a great guy.”
Kahne announced his intention to retire in August. While acknowledging he had not been as competitive as he desired over the last few years, Kahne also spoke of wanting to spend more time with his family. Tanner, Kahne’s son, turned three in October.
Except, Kahne didn’t get to finish the season. Lingering dehydration issues reappeared on Labor Day weekend, and the effects forced Kahne out of his car. He tried to earn medical clearance to return for the final few races by testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but to no avail. Kahne ran 25 of 36 races in his last year.
“I was surprised, but not surprised,” Ray Evernham said of Kahne’s retirement. “I knew he wasn’t totally happy with everything that was going on; I know how much he cares about family and his other forms of racing. In some ways, I’m really sad because I’ve always thought Kasey had way more potential than we were able to realize with him, both myself and Mr. Hendrick.
“I’m [also] happy for him. It takes a lot of guts to stand up and follow your heart and walk away from something everybody tells you [that] you should be doing to do something that you want to do. I really admire him for that.”
For a driver who came into the sport with a bang, Kahne went out without even a whimper – hardly a thought on the final weekend of the year. Ask about him though, and there is plenty to unpack about Kahne’s career, character, and NASCAR legacy.
The Evernham Era
Kahne’s Cup career started with a lawsuit. After two seasons of competing in what is now the Xfinity Series driving a Ford, Kahne was snatched up by Dodge owner Evernham going into 2004. He inherited the No. 9 from Bill Elliott, prompting Ford to sue him for what it viewed as a breach of contract for switching manufacturers. The courts dismissed the claims.
Although winless in his first season, Kahne did grab Rookie of the Year honors by finishing 13th in the overall standings with an impressive 13 top-10 finishes. It didn’t take long for one question to dominate headlines: When will he win?
“The cars of that era suited him, with the crazy bodies and the offset and the way the aero worked,” Evernham said. “I think when Kasey came in, those cars may have suited him more than they suit the other guys, and he was fast. We won a bunch of races; we should have won more races with him. It was his time.”
Kahne finished second five times in 2004, and then once more in 2005 before claiming his first win. Starting from the pole at Richmond Raceway, Kahne was dominant, leading 242 laps on his way to victory at the Chevy American Revolution 400.
“When he first got here, he was very shy,” said Tommy Baldwin, who was Kahne’s crew chief in 2004-05. “He was new at it, so he didn’t know really what to expect – he just got in the thing and drove the wheels off it. We were fortunate enough in the beginning [that] we were fast 90 percent of the places we went to.
“Unbelievable talent… It was fun. It was fun showing up knowing you were one of the cars to beat, and then having all the tools.”
Kyle Busch, who entered the series in 2005, remembers Kahne’s early years.
“Kasey was a fierce competitor in the Evernham days,” he said. “I remember the No.9 Dodge every week going on the racetrack and being fast, and all of us chasing them and wondering what they had going on.”
Beginning with the final race of the ’05 season, Kahne was paired with Kenny Francis, beginning a partnership that lasted through all but five races between then and 2014. The duo exploded with success in 2006, winning six races and finishing eighth in points – at the time, a career-best for Kahne.
“We went through building up an organization at Evernham Motorsports together,” Francis said. “The beginning when we ran so good, we won a lot of races that first year together, and Kasey got everybody’s attention. He’d been kind of a up and coming star two years prior to that, so to hit on all eight [cylinders] and run so good in 2006 and win a bunch of races was probably one of the standouts.”
Through the 2010 season, Francis and Kahne had 10 points-paying wins and a victory in the 2008 All-Star Race – an event he’d earned his entry into via a fan vote. His popularity wasn’t a surprise, for as successful as Kahne was on track, his blue eyes and boyish good looks captured plenty of female attention off it, prompting sponsors like Allstate to take advantage with comedic commercials.
Kasey the Kind
Kahne’s story cannot be told without acknowledging his reputation. A recurring theme that appeared when Kahne’s name was mentioned across the paddock is that he was one of the good guys.
Elliott Sadler was Kahne’s teammate when Sadler arrived at Evernham in 2006, and remembers how welcoming Kahne was even though “that was his team.” At 31, Sadler was becoming a journeyman driver in the series while Kahne, then 26, was becoming a face of the sport. The two were teammates from 2006-10, which included tumultuous transitions into Gillette Evernham Motorsports, and then Richard Petty Motorsports. Sadler and Kahne became such good friends away from the track the two eventually built houses next to each other.
“Funniest thing about Kasey, he’s like a light switch,” Sadler said. “He was so caring and funny and kind of quiet sometimes, but he’d get a little courage going every once in a while, and get pretty loud, and he was always a good guy to be around if you’re having a beer somewhere. But when we were at the racetrack, he knew how to flip a switch, and he was a fierce competitor. You could tell how focused he was, especially when he and Kenny Francis were together. … Wanted to win. Took it very hard when he didn’t, or didn’t run as good as he thinks he should.
“Really good guy. I told him the other day, I liked him as a teammate, but I loved him as a neighbor. If we had bad days on Sunday, we were OK by Monday night. We had already gotten back to loving life in a good way and keeping each other cheered up.”
Busch was one of many to wish Kahne well while also saying he enjoyed competing against him.
“I’m sure we’ve battled for wins here and there on both the Xfinity side and the Cup side,” Busch said. “We’ve also battled for 15th-place finishes and ended up crashing each other a few times. But he’s always been a respected competitor, and one that everybody respects out there on the racetrack.
“You tend to try to not get into him, but you do make mistakes, we’ve all done that, and I’ve done [it] with Kasey. Most notably a couple years ago, when I think it was three times we ran into him and crashed every time. Certainly, I’m sure, he probably feels like he’s still behind on that of getting me back, but overall, it’s been fun over the years.”
Jimmie Johnson also spoke highly of his battles with Kahne over the years. The seven-time champion went as far as to say Kahne, while driving for Evernham, made him a better driver.
“My strong tracks were also his strong tracks – Charlotte is the first one that comes to mind,” Johnson said. “We had some awesome duels. Along my journey of becoming a multi-time champion, he’s one of the guys that’s helped me dig deeper and find more within myself. He’s been a great friend. I certainly just want the best for him. It’s great to see him as a father. The friendship side, that piece is probably what I will hold onto the most. But, along the way, he did make dig deeper than I’ve dug before, and make me stronger.”
Given the amount of time they spent working together, Kahne and Francis naturally became friends as well. Francis described their relationship, built on mutual respect, as “good as friends can be.” When the two recently saw each other, Francis told Kahne that everything he [Francis] has is because of him.